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First published in 1860, The Mill on the Floss is George Eliot's second full length novel. Considered the most autobiographical of her work, it is the story of free-spirited Maggie Tulliver and her stern brother Tom.
Maggie as a child is a beautiful character; Eliot portrays the workings of her mind so truthfully and compellingly. She is full of fiery defiance and lives for the moment, whether in her need for Tom's affection or full of bitter regret after she realizes the consequences of her actions. One of the best illustrations of Maggie's ornery personality is when, after being told since she was young that her looks and behavior are that of a gypsy, she decides to run away and live with "her people". However, when she actually gets her wish and finds herself among the gypsies with no way to get home, it slowly dawns on her that she perhaps acted too precipitously.
Such stories from Maggie's childhood prepare us for the challenges she will face as she grows older. Family troubles cause both Maggie and Tom to take on heavy responsibilities at an early age, turning grown Maggie into a shadow of her former self interspersed with flashes of emotion she can't contain. Alongside their family drama we find several love stories intertwined. With these intertwined stories Eliot explores the themes of emotion over duty, passion over propriety. What if the one you desire is the last person who will make you happy? What place does obligation take in questions of the heart? What place does love of a family member take when conflicted with the love of a lover?
As in her other novels, Eliot spends much introductory time on her main characters, many minor characters and their histories. It is not until halfway through the story that all the elements start to fall together. At this point, The Mill on the Floss is hard to put down--the further into the story you get, the less sure you are of Maggie's fate, the more engrossing her story becomes. These are the great novels, which leave you as conflicted and confused as the characters about which you are reading.
Some readers are dissatisfied with the ending, but perhaps, in retrospect, Eliot could have done it no other way. There is a great debate about this book on C19 forum entitled "The Mill on the Floss and the cult of imperfection"--it is for those who prefer The Mill on the Floss to Middlemarch, Mansfield Park to Pride and Prejudice, George Eliot to Jane Austen. Be forewarned that the ending and important details of the novel are discussed in great detail here, so save this discussion for when you have finished reading. But I reference it because it is a much deeper analyzation than I can go into in this post, and it illustrates the conflicting impressions Eliot inspires through this beautiful and singular work.